The Noir Odyssey
Writer: Muriel Roy Bolton
Based on the novel “The Woman in Red” by Anthony Gilbert
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Nina Foch, May Whitty, George Macready, Roland Varno
Release: November 9, 1945
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Percent Noir: 60%
“My Name is Julia Ross” is a very good movie that is frustrating because it comes so close to greatness. This should be a masterpiece, you keep telling yourself as you watch… and yet…
Nina Foch portrays the title character, who is down on her lucky in rain-soaked London, and interviews for a job as a secretary. Odd questions are asked – do you have a husband? Boyfriend? Family? The woman interviewing Julia explains that the woman looking to employ the secretary has had a history of women leaving after a few months because of personal entanglements. Julia says she has no one. She gets the job, shows up for work and is promptly drugged, kidnapped and moved to a cliffside mansion where she is held hostage and told her name is Marion Hughes. And that’s all within the first 15 minutes. I knew nothing about the film going in, and the first big surprise of the film genuinely caught me off guard.
Despite the film being fairly straightforward, it touches oh-so-slightly on some deep subjects, specifically the loss of identity. Director Joseph H. Lewis frames the opening sequence of the film very interestingly, following Julia from behind as she enters her boarding house and not revealing her face for several moments. There are two reasons given for Julia to be in the position she is – the first is that she is recovering from an appendectomy, and the second is the insinuation (though a wedding invitation she receives and tears up) that she was involved with an engaged sugar daddy and that it ended badly. Neither of these is fleshed out well, which is a shame because it would give Julia’s character some much-needed dimension. She’s the token “plucky heroine” when she’s kidnapped, and because there isn’t any specificity to the character, the second act in particular feels like a missed opportunity. The unnecessary addition of a lame love interest (Roland Varno) who shows up then disappears until the very end doesn’t help matters.
This is doubly a shame since the rest of the movie engages the viewer so completely. From the moment May Whitty, who portrays Julia’s employer/kidnapped Mrs. Hughes, drops her guise of sweetness, the movie takes off. George Macready, who is “Marion’s” “husband,” is really creepy – I love the way the screenwriter so blatantly illustrates his psychosis by having him stab everything, destroying curtains, pillows and his dead wife in the process.
Muriel Roy Bolton, who adapted the film from Anthony Gilbert’s book, knows what kind of movie this is, and has some fun with the trappings. There’s a random secret passage in Julia’s bedroom that she uses to overhear exposition bombs of character background, a bottle of poison with a skull and crossbones (the antidote is helpfully written on the front – white of egg with mustard and hot water. Yuck.) and even a black cat. Clichés? Of course. But part of the fun of a movie like “My Name is Julia Ross” is playing along. If you disagree, there’s just no talking to you.
Bolton is also smart enough to understand that Julia’s “I’m not Marion!” arguing will get repetitive and annoying pretty fast for the audience, so she finds several ways to spin the storytelling into interesting, new aspects. Julia fakes taking poison so a doctor will be called, Mrs. Hughes senses she is faking, so hedges her bets by sending in a fake doctor before the real one arrives. Julia spills her heart to the fake doctor, and when the ruse becomes apparent Julia is spiraling when the real doctor arrives. There’s also some business with a letter (Julia’s handwriting under pressure remains stellar) that keeps getting replaced that is a lot of fun.
Foch is fine as Julia, bringing enough strength to the role to be engaging, though one has to wonder what someone like Joan Fontaine or Jane Greer could have done with the role. That said, there is something interesting about having the villains of the piece be so much larger than the heroine in their performance – it does work within the context of the story being told.
Lewis considers this his breakthrough film – Columbia was so impressed by his work that they nearly doubled his shooting days so that the film got the attention it deserved. The early atmospheric sequences in London are especially compelling, though that aforementioned long take that introduces us to Julia tragically is ruined halfway through by a needless insert shot of a letter. He doesn’t quite pull off the storytelling twists of the climax involving suicide and a dress as well as he should, though the climactic chase into the ocean surf makes up for it.
Lewis’ cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, is one of the greatest of all cinematographers, creating the look for classic films noir like “The Reckless Moment” and “In a Lonely Place” before working on masterpieces like “From Here to Eternity” and then defining the look of “new Hollywood” with “Bonnie & Clyde” near the end of his career.
Despite its problems “My Name is Julia Ross” is still a gem, though possibly it’s more attractive to fans of “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre” than noir aficionados.